YINKA SHONIBARE, Hong Kong Toy Painting, 2013, twenty-seven panels, acrylic on Dutch-wax-printed cotton textile, toys and steel rods, 250 × 620 × 7 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

HEW LOCKE, After the Gold Rush I, 2008, mixed media, 160 × 66 × 66 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

Structures of Recollection: Contemporary Approaches to Materials and Memory

Pearl Lam Galleries
Hong Kong China Korea, South Korea, North Australia United Kingdom Nigeria USA

Exploring the idea of memory recollection, Paul Moorhouse, curator of 20th-century art at London’s National Portrait Gallery, drew together six international artists for “Structures of Recollection: Contemporary Approaches to Materials and Memory,” currently showing at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong.

Moorhouse’s curatorial premise stems from Marcel Proust’s 1913 novel In Search of Lost Time, in which the author asserts that physical reality—the experiences and events we encounter—is perpetually transient, but not forever lost. Coined “involuntary memory,” Proust proposes that the past can be revisited through material triggers; sensations such as a smell, taste, sound or a visual cue may recall a bygone memory. Drawing upon Proust’s theory, each of the six exhibiting artists awaken our individual senses through artworks in which material and methodology is fundamental to their reading.

Included in the show is British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, whosse practice explores identity and culture in a rapidly globalizing world. Hong Kong Toy Painting (2013), at a sprawling six meters in length, comprises 27 panels of variously sized circles, each with protruding rods affixed with toys and figurines around the circumference. Calling to question how memory is attached to inanimate material commodities, traditional toys intermingle with that of modern cultures, such as figurines from the Japanese anime Pokémon, or a diecast model of a British double-decker bus. Through the work, Shonibare investigates the connection between Hong Kong’s multifarious culture—which is rooted in its colonial past—and its relation to the city’s contemporary identity. Hong Kong Toy Painting evoked personal “involuntary memories” for myself; as a young child of an expatriate family brought up in Hong Kong, many of the toys used in the installation were familiar and warmly nostalgic.

Also on view is Edinburgh-born artist Hew Locke’s elaborate, trophy-like sculptures and acrylic paintings on found historical certificates, which share a similar probing nature with Shonibare’s work. After the Gold Rush I and II (both 2008) are immensely eye catching. Shaped as tall trophies adorned with a curious array of objects—from plastic dinosaurs eating skulls to doll parts, plastic flowers, beads and gold chains. The work is in reference to Guyana, which was historically a hotspot for gold mining, which saw Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1595 expedition in pursuit of the mythical El Dorado, and British colonialism of the mid-1800s that stemmed from reports of gold being found there. Locke—who spent his formative years in Guyana before moving to London—attempts to draw attention to the power and triumph of British imperialism while simultaneously critiquing it.

Elsewhere, Australian artist Dale Frank’s work dissects the concept of painting and challenges its process by abandoning traditional mediums associated with the genre. In Chinese Landscape – Sore Succulents (2015), paint stripper has transformed anodized Perspex, with the latter replacing the traditional canvas. The paint stripper has created welts of varied silver sores, which appear to burst on the reflective blue surface of the acrylic sheet. As the viewer gazes upon their own reflection, they are pulled into Frank’s “dreamscapes,” thereby completing his work.

DALE FRANK, Chinese Landscape – Sore Succulents, 2015, paint stripper acid on anodized Perspex, 200 × 200 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

QIU DESHU, Fissuring, 2015, acrylic on xuan paper and canvas, 270 × 520 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

Shanghai-born Qiu Deshu’s five-meter-wide, vibrantly colored Fissuring (2015) is perhaps the focal point of the exhibition. Torn pieces of xuan rice paper, form long narrow splits across the surface of the canvas, or “fissures,” in the words of the artist. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chinese contemporary art went through important changes as concepts of Western post-modernism flowed into the country, leading to an outpouring of creativity and experimentation in the 1980s. As one of the country’s foremost contemporary artists and experimental painters, Qiu’s treatment of xuan paper is both an acknowledgment of his education in traditional Chinese painting and scroll mounting, as well as his artistic expression that connects the past to his present.

Other artists in the show include Seoul-based Chun Kwang Young and American artist Leonardo Drew, who both create wall-mounted sculptures that rely heavily on material and contextual manipulation to evoke “involuntary memories.” In Young’s work, traditional Korean mulberry papers are folded over small triangles of styrofoam in Aggregation 07-DE245 (2007) to create a highly texturized, vibrant surface. Layer upon layer, shards of paper protrude at various angles and heights, recalling the artist’s childhood memories of medicine packages wrapped up in mulberry paper. Similarly, the sites and smells of growing up beside a landfill in Connecticut heavily influence Drew’s practice. The blackness of Drew’s Number 22C (2015), a looming wood sculpture with a sinister edge, hangs in stark contrast against the gallery’s white wall. His use of found wood, painted in dense, flat black, appears like charcoal, alluding to deterioration and transformation, while referencing the natural and sometimes unnatural cycles occurring in our world.

Involuntary memories exist within all of us and could be conjured by various kinds of stimuli. Through the works of the six artists in “Structures of Recollection,” Moorhouse attempts to probe the idea of personal and collective memories—of how we associate with histories, encounters and material objects. Experiences may be fleeting, but, to reference Proustian theory, it is not forever lost.

“Structures of Recollection: Contemporary Approaches to Materials and Memory” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, until April 28, 2016.